Missouri’s new effort to punish libraries is vindictive and harmful

Among the books banned: The graphic novel adaptations of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and The Handmaid’s Tale, Batman comics, and books about famous women.
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Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” is among the books being targeted nationwide by public school book bans (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

Late last month, Missouri’s House passed a budget that would strip all state funding for public libraries — $4.5 million in total.

Republican lawmakers say they are doing this to retaliate against a lawsuit by Missouri librarians, who hope to see a new law against “explicit sexual material” in schools — in reality, a book banning mandate — declared unconstitutional. The book ban mandate, which was tacked on as an amendment to a larger bill expanding the rights of sexual assault victims, treats school librarians as potential sex criminals.

It has already struck fear in the ranks of librarians statewide.

This effort to defund public libraries is vindictive and would harm Missourians, especially children who lawmakers are claiming to protect, by shrinking access to libraries’ educational materials and programs.

The budget proposal is about political power—with children as pawns.

Here’s what happened.

In August 2022, Missouri passed Senate Bill 775 that created important new protections for sexual assault survivors. As the bill moved through the Senate, a Republican lawmaker added an amendment that made it a Class A misdemeanor for librarians or teachers to provide “explicit sexual material” to a student.

While the majority of the Missouri Senate condemned the amendment as a “self-serving” effort to hijack an uncontroversial bill, the law still passed with the amended language.

Make no mistake: This amendment enables book banning on a statewide scale.

The measure’s definition of “explicit sexual material” is sweeping, applying to any visual depiction of a range of physical attributes or acts. And while there are carve-outs for images with serious artistic or scientific significance, those distinctions are inherently subjective.

Perhaps most frighteningly, a librarian or educator violating the law—simply by including an “explicit” book within their catalog—may face up to a year in prison.

Since the law was enacted, some Missouri school districts have reported receiving lists of books to remove from district administrators and attorneys. Other districts have received no guidance, leaving librarians to search their stacks themselves to determine which books might be considered “explicit” under the law. Librarians who get it wrong because, for example, they refuse to pull an art book whose merits are deemed not “significant” or a comic book with depictions that could be interpreted as sexual puts their liberty at risk, along with their job.

PEN America has tracked how hundreds of books have been banned in school districts across Missouri, as a result of the measure. Among the books: The graphic novel adaptations of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and The Handmaid’s Tale, Batman comics, and books about famous women.

One major theme of these banned books is that they often feature or are written by LGBTQ+ people.

To understand just how damaging this law has been read PEN America’s list of banned books.

As a result of the law, some librarians now live in fear. A recent story from the media outlet Coda profiled a Missouri high school librarian who has been visited twice by a police officer, who told her she had been accused of giving pornography to children. At no point did the librarian find out which book was the culprit.

The librarian, who asked to be identified with the pseudonym “Amy,” has begun reviewing her entire library’s collection in order to comply with the new law—but she has decided not to ask any of her colleagues for help. Why? So that they don’t face potential prison charges as well if they decide to include a book that police officers decide is “explicit.”

Amy told the news outlet: “Never would I have ever thought that the library could land me in jail.”

It’s no wonder that Missouri’s librarians, with the support of the Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, have sued to find the law unconstitutional. But apparently that has hurt a senior Republican legislator’s feelings: Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith reportedly said he was upset by the suit and as a result proposed the budgetary removal of state library funding.

Apparently Smith considers it unfair for Missouri state employees to fight for their rights in court. And while he has argued the state shouldn’t have to “subsidize” the libraries’ lawsuit, it’s unclear what subsidies he is talking about. The Missouri ACLU is representing the libraries for free.

This new budget proposal — library cuts included — has already passed the Missouri House. The Senate appears unlikely to approve these cuts. But if they do,  libraries will lose all state funding.

If that happens, it will disproportionately hurt economically disadvantaged and rural Missourians. Libraries typically provide other essential services, including free access to wi-fi and computers. Local libraries in rural areas are particularly dependent on state funding. Librarians have already stated that, if this budget passes, they will have to cut back on services, including those that have helped Missouri communities get access to life-saving health information

This newest budget proposal needs to be opposed — by all readers, writers, community advocates, and yes, parents. But further, the book banning amendment within SB 775 needs to be repealed. It hurts Missouri’s librarians. It hurts their communities.

And it hurts their kids.

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: info@missouriindependent.com. Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.

Categories: Politics